Are Military Chaplains Helpful or Harmful?

OutServe Magazine, a publication for LGBT service members, recently hosted a guest blog entitled “Chaplains: Force Multiplier or Force Distractor?

Vicki Hudson, a combat veteran and writer who is working on several military projects, opened up with an excerpt of one Code of Ethics for Chaplains that states “I will seek to provide pastoral care and ministry to persons of religious bodies other than my own within my area of responsibility with the same investment of myself as I give to members of my own religious body.”

This wording leaves large loopholes for chaplains to steamroll beliefs they disagree with. The intent is benign — that chaplains should serve everyone — but Hudson lays out her experience with chaplains in practice (emphasis hers):

I was told “Always have the unit and national colors behind your desk, and the bible on your desk”… prayer remained integral to every mission’s start and completion. Those that didn’t take part were often looked upon with disdain and distrust. The message was clear: Good Soldiers pray together. I didn’t necessarily agree with the dominant faith group, but I stood quietly and bowed my head just the same. It was required for survival and acceptance.

This report mirrors what many atheists in foxholes have experienced, something worth considering since Hudson is deeply religious. She continues to show some admirable dedication to ensuring no others would feel excluded by declaring that chaplains should focus on a Code of Ethics (quoted in the article) that states chaplains should “draw upon those beliefs, principles, and practice that we (chaplain and audience) have in common.” She declares a chaplain who would pray in a manner that excludes others is simply “failing the Chaplain mission.”

Hudson identifies that a “force multiplier chaplain” (her term) differs from a “force distracter chaplain” to the extent that a chaplain can accommodate diversity in the unit. I can agree with this sentiment, but that sentiment alone will not make the chaplaincy a force multiplier in the way Hudson wants. Chaplains must fundamentally re-evaluate their approach to diversity of belief.

  1. Chaplains must be trained to accommodate nontheistic beliefs and how to support nontheistic beliefs. Chaplains can never support a diverse military when they have no openness to or training about a significant nontheistic population.
  2. It is impossible to give a prayer at a mandatory event and accommodate everyone. One could also argue that the more a prayer accommodates a diverse population, the less it accommodates the chaplain giving the prayer. The logical extension is that mandatory prayer shouldn’t be.
  3. There needs to be a code of ethics for military chaplains. This code should reflect the commitment of the chaplaincy to serve diversity, and this is critical because service to diversity is what distinguishes the profession of the chaplaincy from a parish clergy person.

The attentive reader may ask, “But you said Hudson quoted a chaplain code of ethics.” She did, but that code of ethics is the Covenant and Code of Ethics for the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces. NCMAF is an organization of Christian chaplains that exerts strong influence over the military (even to the point of rewriting military regulations). However, NCMAF is not the Department of Defense and there is no explicit chaplaincy code of ethics for the U.S. military. Furthermore, the NCMAF Code is explicitly exclusive of nontheistic beliefs, requiring an affirmation that, “I will show personal love for God in my life and ministry.”

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and OutServe — the newly-merged organizations that work to protect the rights of LGBT military personnel — are doing wonderful work, and Vicki Hudson is an ally for reforming the chaplaincy. She has done them a favor in laying out these issues, but Hudson’s reforms still leave the chaplaincy a “force detracter” for everyone who doesn’t pray.

About Jason Torpy

**Comments at Friendly Atheist do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers are any other organizations.** Jason Torpy serves as President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), a nonprofit community for atheists and humanists in the military. MAAF also educates military leaders about the needs of nontheists and advocates where necessary. Jason is a former Army Captain and Iraq veteran with a Bachelor of Science degree from West Point and an MBA from The Ohio State University.

  • Stev84

    Chaplains should be available for those who want them. Offering religious services and just be there to talk to. That’s how it started out – and it’s how chaplains in basically all other western countries operate – but along the way something went terribly wrong.

    Most things beyond that go too far. For example, attendance at services needs to be strictly voluntary and not coerced like it usually happens in basic training (yeah, they don’t have to go, but then they are punished). And there is absolutely no need for prayers/invocations at any random unit function. There is also a huge problem with giving them ever more responsibilities in mental healthcare, although they usually don’t have the proper training and don’t approach that task from a secular point of view.

    The issue isn’t their existence, but that they don’t restrict themselves to their core functions and insert themselves into too much activities. Or are inserted by overly religious commanders.

  • Erp

     Given the role they do play, extensive training in mental healthcare should be a requirement and extensive training about other religions (and philosophical stances) they may encounter.  BTW the code of ethics for the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education might make a good beginning.  It includes “Demonstrate respect for the cultural and religious values of those they   serve and refrain from imposing their our own values and beliefs on those served”.

    The NCMAF though primarily Christian does have some non-Christian members (it is just that non-Christian chaplains in the US military are rare).  It did also recently drop the clause from their code of ethics that considered the non-religious fair game for converting.

  • Phil

    It sounds more like a social worker’s job, not an often inadequately trained chaplain, whose primary mission and training is religious and whose motives may not be well suited to the military life of all soldiers/sailors, etc.  

    Maybe it’s time to split the function into two jobs:  social worker/advocate and chaplain.  The former would be a licensed, formally trained professional, with the latter tending to strictly religious matters.  Better yet, the chaplains can be paid by the churches, etc. they represent, and not the government.

    • Stev84

      The US military does have trained mental health specialists, but just not enough. So they started pushing chaplains into that role even further simply because they were available. They’ve always been counselors unofficially, but in recent years that role was extended officially.

      There are also systematic barriers to proper mental health care. Seeing a psychologist carriers a certain stigma – like the perception of being weak. Talking to a chaplain doesn’t, so they are often the first stop (and maybe the last). It can also require the approval of a superior, which is the same as admitting that you have a problem. Again, that’s not necessarily the case with a chaplain. Just another case of undeserved privilege, but a very dangerous one.

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        actually, that’s not true. seeking out  a chaplain, or getting *any* help for a mental health issue, is often stigmatized by command and fellow servicemembers alike. depends on the unit leadership how much, but it can happen.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Harmful, as our troops should not be burdened down with needless dogma and religiosity. A mind poisoned by religion cannot be trusted in a combat situation.

    • Robert Freid

      Are you suggesting that our troops be “Loyal to the State.”?

      • Robert Freid

        Against their own religion I mean to add.

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

          No, I’m suggesting that any and all religious teaching or dogma is damaging to the troops, and therefore should be rejected. Providing chaplains only spreads the poison of “faith”, and causes harm to ALL of the troops, especially those who are atheist or non-Christian, because they are the ones targeted for abuse by their superiors.

          THAT is why the religious bullshit needs to be removed.

          • Robert Freid

            Dude, you realize that there can be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, neo-Pagan, etc. chaplains in the military as well? By the way, chaplains are a choice.

            //”No, I’m suggesting that any and all religious teaching or dogma is damaging to the troops, and therefore should be rejected. Providing chaplains only spreads the poison of “faith”…//

            And how is any of that of what you said not forcing your disbeliefs on other religions? Imagine it, you are to pratically saying: “Well because we know what is better for you, we are going to suddenly discontinue ALL of your religious chaplains because we determined that faith is (in your words) ‘poisonous’ and ‘damaging to you guys.’”

  • A.Wolf

    As I military spouse many years ago, I sought out marriage counseling from a military chaplain. What happened was that this much-older chaplain took advantage of my vulnerable state and I ended up in a 3-month “affair” with him. It ended when I told the head chaplain, but there was no court martial (as was called for when an officer had an affair with an enlisted man’s wife). Instead, the chaplain got relocated, as well as given a severance pay, but the consequences for me and my family were devastating…and long-lasting.

    • Guest

      I can understand being a vulnerable young woman in a new setting, but you do not “accidentally” have an affair.  He may have taken advantage of your situation, but you also need to accept responsability for your own actions.  And why is affair in quotations?  Either you had one or you didn’t.  Sorry to be rough on you, its not right he got away with it when others wouldn’t have, but you need to accept your part in it.  Learn from your mistakes, yeah?

  • Rich

    In my experience, most chaplains are not pushy or overbearing.  They will walk around and check on people and allow those that need them to seek them out.  Like I said, most.  There are a few that will push into any situation and almost demand a prayer be done.  This happened when I left Afghanistan from my last deployment.  We were sitting on the bus and he bounded his way through the door spoke for a minute or two and then went straight into prayer.  I, as always, continued what I was doing since most of the people on the bus with me were Christians.  Be that as it may, it really irritated me that he was being that forceful but we were leaving, so I dealt with it.

  • Sparky43

    Chaplains should be like cadets during the first month of training; speak only when spoken to.  Chaplains should be free to advertise the church services they offer, and mention their open door policy, but there should never be mandatory attendance or prayer in formations.

    • Blacksheep

      That’s mainly how it is – if you have any buddies in the military, ask them. No mandatory attendence. (Other than a few stories of oddball leaders who have imposed that upon their trrops).

      • Stev84

        You are lying as always. Christianity is a core component of American military culture. It’s deeply embedded in everything.

        It’s been standard for decades that recruits in basic training are told they have to pick some religioua service to attend. Any will do as long as they get some religion. Yeah, technically they don’t have to, but the alternative is always cleaning the barracks or doing other menial work. Instead of doing nothing like those who go to church. And of course speaking up will only make them a target, so most just go along.

        People also don’t have a choice when there is prayer in a formation or at a function (like a dinner or promotion ceremony). Which is standard and they can’t just walk away. If they are lucky enough to not be forced to bow their heads, they still have to listen to it all.

  • Guest

    The stories I’ve been told by my many active duty friends about their chaplains, and I question having them at all.  With the Bush years many Christian zealots who cannot properly serve all our military men joined enmass, with the ulterior motive to go to Holy War against the Muslims.  Many events and comments made by chaplains make this abundantly clear, and a great number of them today are not the tolerant, all-come-to-me-for-aid chaplains we use to have, but instead are a my-way-or-the-highway zealotous Christian instead.  It seems to be peetering out as the wars draw to a close though, thankfully.  Still, I’ll always question with these experiences in mind.

    And forced religious activities in the military are an ongoing problem.

    • Robert Freid

      Military Chaplains are not even allowed to carry firearms to protect themselves-that is the job of the Chaplain’s assistant. So the conception of a “Holy War” is mostly barking.

      • Guest

        Partially true.  But when you have a chaplain in your helicopter armed with 50 cals and rockets talking to the pilots and crew chiefs about killing all the Muzzies, it hardly matters if he’s armed himself.  It still leaves a rather solid impression.  That said, many places chaplains can indeed carry side arms, it depends on the theatre they are currently deployed in.  Or rather, its not looked down on when they carry in those theatres, even if its against orders.  Also depends on which branch you’re speaking about.

        • Robert Freid

          So they can arm themselves in a helicopter? What arms are they allowed to carry? The branch I am taling about was the U.S. Army. And is that your experience?

          • Guest

            Mine is more USMC, and Army personnel should understand what the term side arms means.  Small arms, pistols, glocks.  Also, chaplains in the USMC experience often do not have assistants.  Like I said, the different branches may have different operational standards, and I can only speak from my experience.

            At any rate, I think you’re focusing on the wrong part of my comment.  I was speaking about the chaplain culture, not particularly about what arms they do or don’t carry.  Having a zealotous, intolerant chaplain can cut off a vital resource of counsel for the troops, because word spreads quickly if they are “hardcore” Christians who aren’t open to anything/anyone but other hardcore Christians.  It makes it hard for even a moderate Christian to see them concerning problems (religious or otherwise), much less other religions or non-religious personnel.  If you know your chaplain joined only to see his religious enemies die in a war, it cuts into not only their accessability, but the respect for chaplains altogether.  It appeared to be a growing problem, and now seems to be waning as the wars wrap up.

          • Beleester

            I don’t think he meant the chaplain was armed in a helicopter, he meant that the chaplain was in an armed helicopter.  And when you have the crew of an armed helicopter listening to you, it doesn’t matter what you’re carrying personally.

  • http://twitter.com/Genesyn Mike Becker

    Most my experience with Chaplains was in the end of the Clinton era, but one of my favorite people in Basic Training was the Jewish Chaplain. It was amusing and sad at the same time, as he was the one who got “everyone else” after the Protestant and Catholic chaplains.

      If you were anything other than Protestant or Catholic you got this guy, and from what I saw we were lucky.  He was open to everyone, never tried to make you be a Jew or anything, and was just a great guy to talk to.  Exactly how a Chaplain SHOULD be.  Sad what it became during the Bush era as many more evangelicals joined.

    • Stev84

      Jews in general don’t proselytize. Many Christian fundie chaplains on the other hand are mainly there to convert people.

      But the fundie takeover of the chaplain corps didn’t start with Bush. That began in the 90s already though it may have accelerated later.

      • http://twitter.com/Genesyn Mike Becker

        I always did like the Jews.  Good people.  Great jokes. :)

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    my experience with the military chaplain serving our unit was profoundly negative. i felt, as did others, that he was in no way there to “minister” or “serve” us, but instead served what amounted to a politically motivated group of senior officers seeking to weed out those who were “unsuitable” in their eyes for promotion and advancement. the chaplain seemed eager to take advantage of some of us in our unit during our moments of need (the only time you really interact with one, in most cases) and use that information against us in later, private discussions with the senior officers. 

  • Aspieguy

    In Germany our unit chaplain was mostly invisible and irrelevant to us. We never saw him at field exercises or other large training events. Most were unaware who our chaplain was. That’s pretty bad when an 800 man battalion wouldn’t know the chaplain if he danced on their face.
    In other units I was assigned I was completely unaware of the chaplains.
    Upon entrance into the military each member takes an oath swearing to “defend the Constitution”. Contrary to the beliefs of evangelicals, most of the military doesn’t attend church, pray, or practice religion. In my platoon religion was never practiced. We were too busy  going to German pubs and drinking intemperate amounts of beer.

  • ORAXX

    In Viet Nam, at a very low point in my life, I got to listen to a priest give, what I came to call the, “kill a commie for Christ” pep talk.  I never had much use for priests or any other clergy person after that.


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